Califano v. Webster,
430 U.S. 313 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Califano v. Webster, 430 U.S. 313 (1977)

Califano v. Webster

No. 76-457

Decided March 21, 1977

430 U.S. 313


Under § 215 of the Social Security Act, old-age benefits are computed on the basis of a wage earner's "average monthly wage" earned during his "benefit computation years" which are the "elapsed years" (reduced by five) during which his covered wages were highest. Until 1972, when the statute was amended to eliminate the distinction, "elapsed years" depended upon the wage earner's sex. Section 215(b)(3) prescribed that the number of "elapsed years" for a male wage earner would be three higher than for an otherwise similarly situated female wage earner; for a male, the number of "elapsed years" equaled the number of years that elapsed after 1950 and before the year in which he became 65, whereas, for a female, the number of "elapsed years" equaled the number of years that elapsed after 1950 and before the year in which she became 62. Accordingly, a female could exclude from the computation of her "average monthly wage" three more lower earning years than a similarly situated male could exclude, and this would result in a slightly higher "average monthly wage" and correspondingly higher monthly old-age benefits for the retired female wage earner. On review of a denial of the request of appellee male wage earner (to whom the 1972 amendment did not apply because he reached age 62 before its effective date) that the more favorable formula be used to compute his old-age benefits, the District Court held that the statutory scheme violated the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment on the grounds that (1) to give women who reached age 62 before 1975 greater benefits than men of the same age and earnings record was irrational, and (2) in any event, the 1972 amendment was to be construed to apply retroactively, because otherwise it would be irrational.


1. "[C]lassifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives," Craig v. Boren, 429 U. S. 190, 429 U. S. 197.

2. The statutory scheme itself, and the legislative history of former § 215(b)(3), demonstrate that the statute was deliberately enacted to "redres[s] our society's longstanding disparate treatment of women,"

Page 430 U. S. 314

Califano v. Goldfarb, ante at 430 U. S. 209 n. 8, and was not "the accidental byproduct of a traditional way of thinking about females." Ante at 430 U. S. 223 (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment). The statute operated directly to compensate women for past economic discrimination by allowing them to eliminate additional low-earning years from the calculation of their retirement benefits, and in no way penalized women wage earners.

3. The failure to make the 1972 amendment retroactive does not constitute discrimination on the basis of date of birth. Old-age benefits are not constitutionally immunized against alterations of this kind, but Congress may replace one constitutional computation formula with another, and make the new formula prospective only.

413 F.Supp. 127, reversed.

Primary Holding

Section 215 of the Social Security Act does not violate due process by allowing women to calculate retirement benefits without including additional low-earning years, since it is an attempt to compensate for previous discrimination.


Under Section 215 of the Social Security Act, women are allowed to exclude additional low-earning years when their retirement benefits are calculated. When this law was challenged in federal court, the lower court ruled that it was unconstitutional on equal protection grounds. It observed that it was irrational to give women greater benefits than men of the same age and earnings when they reached age 62 before 1975. The court also felt that the 1972 amendment should be given retroactive effect because it was unconstitutionally irrational to give men who reach age 62 or later in 1975 the benefit of having years for calculation of retirement benefits no longer dependent on sex.


Per Curiam

The standard for evaluating a gender classification for equal protection purposes is that it must be connected to an important government interest and must be substantially related to furthering that interest. The government does have an important interest in reducing the disparate economic condition of men and women. The only apparent purpose of treating women more favorably under the law is to provide a remedy for the historical disparate treatment of women. Thus, the gender classification in the law appears to derive from a benign legislative purpose.

Case Commentary

This case was reviewed under intermediate scrutiny, which is the appropriate standard for gender discrimination, rather than the strict scrutiny review used for race discrimination. As a result, an attempt to correct a generalized past pattern of discrimination was sufficient to support the government's action here, whereas it was not sufficient in a race discrimination case. This illustrates the difference between an important government interest and a compelling government interest.

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